David Barsamian: Let’s head into the most obvious nightmare of this moment, the war in Ukraine and its effects globally. Let’s start with some background. Let’s start with President George H.W. Bush’s assurance to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move “one inch to the east” — and that pledge has been verified. My question to you is, why didn’t Gorbachev get that in writing?
Noam Chomsky He accepted a gentleman’s agreement, which is not that uncommon in diplomacy. Shake-of-the-hand. It would also have been useless to have it printed. Treaties that are only on paper can be torn up at any time. It is only good faith that matters. H.W. Bush, the first Bush did honor the agreement. He even attempted to create a partnership in peaceful co-operation that would include Eurasia. NATO wouldn’t be disbanded but would be marginalized. For example, Tajikistan could join NATO without being officially part of it. Gorbachev endorsed that. It would have been a step towards creating what he called a “commonality”. European home without military alliances
In his first two years, Clinton also adhered to this principle. According to experts, Clinton began to speak from both sides of his mouth around 1994. To the Russians he was saying: Yes, we’re going to adhere to the agreement. To the Polish community in the United States and other ethnic minorities, he was saying: Don’t worry, we’ll incorporate you within NATO. In 1996-97, Clinton made this explicit to Boris Yeltsin (his Russian friend who he had helped win in 1996). He told Yeltsin: Don’t push too hard on this NATO business. We’re going to expand but I need it because of the ethnic vote in the United States.
In 1997, Clinton invited the so-called Visegrad countries — Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania — to join NATO. The Russians didn’t like it but didn’t make much of a fuss. Then, the Baltic countries joined, again doing the same thing. In 2008, the second Bush, who was very different from the previous, invited Georgian and Ukrainians into NATO. Every U.S. diplomat knew that Russia was not interested in Georgia and Ukraine. They’ll tolerate the expansion elsewhere, but these are in their geostrategic heartland and they’re not going to tolerate expansion there. Continue the story. The Maidan Uprising was held in 2014. It expelled the pro-Russian president, and Ukraine moved toward NATO.
From 2014, the U.S. and NATO began to pour arms into Ukraine — advanced weapons, military training, joint military exercises, moves to integrate Ukraine into the NATO military command. There’s no secret about this. It was very open. It was something that Jens Stoltenberg (Secretary General of NATO) boasted about recently. He stated: This was what we had been doing since 2014. This is obviously very provocative. They knew they were infringing on what every Russian leader considered an unacceptable move. France and Germany vetoed the 2008 plan, but they were forced to keep it on the agenda by the United States. The United States made an attempt to accelerate the de facto incorporation of Ukraine into NATO.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected with an overwhelming majority — I think about 70% of the vote — on a peace platform, a plan to implement peace with Eastern Ukraine and Russia, to settle the problem. He began to move forward on it and, in fact, tried to go to the Donbas, the Russian-oriented eastern region, to implement what’s called the Minsk II agreement. It would have led to a sort of federalization of Ukraine, with some autonomy for the Donbas. This is what they wanted. Something similar to Switzerland or Belgium. He was stopped by right-wing militias that threatened to kill him if they didn’t give up.
Well, he’s a courageous man. He could have moved forward with the support of the United States. The U.S. declined. There was no backing. He was left to fend for himself and had to retreat. This policy of integrating Ukraine into NATO’s military command was the U.S. policy. This was further accelerated by the election of President Biden. It was available on the White House website in September 2021. It wasn’t reported but, of course, the Russians knew it. Biden announced a program, a joint statement to accelerate the process of military training, military exercises, more weapons as part of what his administration called an “enhanced program” of preparation for NATO membership.
It accelerated even further in November. All this was before the invasion. Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, signed what was known as a charter. This basically formalized and extended the arrangement. A spokesperson for State Department admitted that the U.S. did not discuss Russian security concerns before the invasion. All of this is background.
Putin invaded Russia on February 24th. This was a criminal invasion. These grave provocations are no justification. Putin would have done something completely different if he was a stateman. He would have retorted to French President Emmanuel Macron to grasp his tentative proposals and moved to try to find an accommodation with Europe, in order to take steps towards a European Common Home.
This has been opposed by the U.S. since its inception. This goes way back in Cold War history to French President De Gaulle’s initiatives to establish an independent Europe. In his phrase “from the Atlantic to the Urals,” integrating Russia with the West, which was a very natural accommodation for trade reasons and, obviously, security reasons as well. So, had there been any statesmen within Putin’s narrow circle, they would have grasped Macron’s initiatives and experimented to see whether, in fact, they could integrate with Europe and avert the crisis. Instead, he chose a policy that was, from Russia’s point of view, total incompetence. He chose a policy that drove Europe into the United States’ pocket, in addition to the criminality of the invasion. In fact, it is even inducing Sweden and Finland to join NATO — the worst possible outcome from the Russian point of view, quite apart from the criminality of the invasion, and the very serious losses that Russia is suffering because of that.
So, crime and stupidity on Kremlin’s side, severe provocation from the U.S. That’s the background that has led to this. Can we stop this horror? Or should it be perpetuated? These are the options.
There’s only one way to bring it to an end. That’s diplomacy. Diplomacy by definition means that both sides agree to it. They don’t like it, but they accept it as the least bad option. It would provide Putin an escape hatch. That’s one possibility. The other is just to drag it out and see how much everybody will suffer, how many Ukrainians will die, how much Russia will suffer, how many millions of people will starve to death in Asia and Africa, how much we’ll proceed toward heating the environment to the point where there will be no possibility for a livable human existence. These are the options. With almost 100% unanimity, the United States of America and most of Europe want the no-diplomacy option. It’s explicit. We cannot stop trying to harm Russia.
Columns can be viewed in the New York TimesLondon Financial TimesAll over Europe. A common refrain is: we’ve got to make sure that Russia suffers. It doesn’t matter what happens to Ukraine or anyone else. Of course, this gamble assumes that if Putin is pushed to the limit, with no escape, forced to admit defeat, he’ll accept that and not use the weapons he has to devastate Ukraine.
There are a lot of things that Russia hasn’t done. It is quite surprising to Western analysts. Namely, they’ve not attacked the supply lines from Poland that are pouring weapons into Ukraine. They could. This would put them in direct confrontation against NATO, which means the U.S. Anyone who’s ever looked at war games knows where it’ll go — up the escalatory ladder toward terminal nuclear war.
So, those are the games we’re playing with the lives of Ukrainians, Asians, and Africans, the future of civilization, in order to weaken Russia, to make sure that they suffer enough. If you’re willing to play that game, tell the truth. There’s no moral basis for it. In fact, it’s morally horrendous. And the people who are standing on a high horse about how we’re upholding principle are moral imbeciles when you think about what’s involved.
In the media, and among the political class in the United States, and probably in Europe, there’s much moral outrage about Russian barbarity, war crimes, and atrocities. They are happening as they do in every war. Don’t you find that moral outrage a bit selective though?
Moral outrage is perfectly acceptable. There should be moral outrage. But you go to the Global South, they just can’t believe what they’re seeing. They condemn war, of course. It’s a deplorable crime of aggression. They look at the West and ask: What are you talking about? This is what you do all the time to us.
It’s kind of astonishing to see the difference in commentary. You read the New York TimesThomas Friedman, who is their big thinker. A few weeks back, he wrote a column in despair. He said, “What can we do?” How can we live with a war criminal in our world? We’ve never experienced this since Hitler. There’s a war criminal in Russia. We’re at a loss as to how to act. We’ve never imagined the idea that there could be a war criminal anywhere.
When people in the Global South hear this, they don’t know whether to crack up in laughter or ridicule. Washington is home to war criminals. We know how to deal effectively with war criminals. It actually happened on the 20th anniversary of the invasion in Afghanistan. This was an unprovoked invasion that was strongly opposed by the world. In the style section, there was an interview with George W. Bush who went on to invade Iraq. He is a major war criminal. Washington Post — an interview with, as they described it, this lovable goofy grandpa who was playing with his grandchildren, making jokes, showing off the portraits he painted of famous people he’d met. It was a wonderful, friendly environment.
So we now know how to deal war criminals. Thomas Friedman is mistaken. They are very well dealt with.
Or, take Henry Kissinger, the most notorious war criminal of modern times. We treat him with respect and politeness. This is the man after all who transmitted the order to the Air Force, saying that there should be massive bombing of Cambodia — “anything that flies on anything that moves” was his phrase. I don’t know of a comparable example in the archival record of a call for mass genocide. It was executed with intense bombing of Cambodia. We don’t know much about it because we don’t investigate our own crimes. Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan have written about it. Then there’s our role in overthrowing Salvador Allende’s government in Chile and instituting a vicious dictatorship there, and on and on. We know how to deal avec our war criminals.
Still, Thomas Friedman can’t imagine that there’s anything like Ukraine. It was also not commented on, which means that it was considered quite reasonable. It is difficult to use the term selectivity. It’s beyond astonishing. The moral outrage is clearly in place. It’s good that Americans are finally beginning to show some outrage about major war crimes committed by someone else.
I’ve got a little puzzle for you. It’s in two parts. Russia’s military is inept and incompetent. Its soldiers are poor-led and have low morale. Its economy ranks with Italy’s and Spain’s. That’s one part. The other part is Russia is a military powerhouse that threatens to overthrow us. We need more weapons. Let’s expand NATO. How do you reconcile these contradictory thoughts?
These two thoughts are common across the West. I was recently interviewed in Sweden about their plans for NATO membership. I pointed out that the Swedish leaders have contradictory ideas. One, gloating over the fact that Russia has proven itself to be a paper tiger that can’t conquer cities a couple of miles from its border defended by a mostly citizens’ army. So, they’re completely militarily incompetent. The other thought is: they’re poised to conquer the West and destroy us.
George Orwell had an acronym for it. Doublethink was what Orwell called it. It is the ability to have two contradictory ideas and believe both. Orwell mistakenly believed that it was something you could only get in the ultra-totalitarian society he was satirizing. 1984.He was wrong. It is possible to have it in democratic free societies. We’re seeing a dramatic example of it right now. This isn’t the first time.
This type of doublethink is, in fact, typical of Cold War thinking. You can go back to NSC-68, the most important Cold War document of those years. It was published in 1950. It was clear that Europe alone was militarily on par with Russia, if you carefully look at it. We still needed a massive rearmament programme to counter the Kremlin’s plans for world conquest.
That’s one document and it was a conscious approach. Dean Acheson, one of the authors, later said that it’s necessary to be “clearer than truth,” his phrase, in order to bludgeon the mass mind of government. We want to drive through this huge military budget, so we have to be “clearer than truth” by concocting a slave state that’s about to conquer the world. This kind of thinking was prevalent during the Cold War. I could give you many other examples, but we’re seeing it again now quite dramatically. The way you stated it is correct: these ideas are consuming West.
It’s also interesting that diplomat George Kennan foresaw the danger of NATO moving its borders east in a very prescient op-ed he wrote that appeared in The New York Times1997
Kennan was also opposed to NSC-68. He had actually been the director for the State Department Policy Planning Staff. Paul Nitze replaced him. He was regarded as too soft to handle such a difficult world. He was a hawk and radically anticommunist. He was quite brutal about U.S. positions but realized that military confrontation with Russia was not a good idea.
He believed that Russia would eventually collapse due to internal contradictions. This turned out to be true. He was regarded as a dove through it all. In 1952, he voted for the unification Germany outside of the NATO military alliance. That was actually Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin’s proposal as well. Kennan was an ambassador to the Soviet Union and a Russia specialist.
Stalin’s initiative. Kennan’s proposal. It was supported by some Europeans. It would have ended Cold War. It would have meant a neutralized Germany that was not militaritarized and not a member of any military bloc. It was almost ignored by Washington.
James Warburg was a respected foreign policy expert who wrote a book. It’s worth reading. It’s called Germany is the Key to Peace. He urged that this idea should be taken seriously in it. He was dismissed, ignored, and ridiculed. I mentioned it a few times and was ridiculed for it as well. How could you believe Stalin? The archives were able to prove it. It turned out that he was actually serious. Now, you can read Melvin Leffler and other Cold War historians. They recognize that there was an opportunity for peaceful settlement at the time. However, they dismissed it in favor militarization and a massive expansion of the military budget.
Now, let’s go to the Kennedy administration. Nikita Khrushchev was leading Russia at that time and made an important offer to John Kennedy to reduce the size of their offensive military weapons. This would have led to a sharp decrease in tensions. The United States was well ahead militarily in that time. Khrushchev wanted economic development in Russia, but he understood that this was impossible when there was a military confrontation against a much wealther enemy. He made the offer to President Dwight Eisenhower first, but he ignored it. It was then offered to Kennedy and his administration responded with the largest peacetime buildup of military force in history — even though they knew that the United States was already far ahead.
The U.S. concocted a “missile gap.” Russia was about to overwhelm us with its advantage in missiles. It turned out that the missile gap was in favor the U.S. Russia had only four missiles at its airbase.
You could go on like this. Policymakers don’t have to worry about the security of the populace. Yes, security for the privileged, the wealthy, the corporate sector, and arms manufacturers is a concern, but not for the rest. This doublethinking is constant, conscious or unconscious at times. It’s just what Orwell described, hyper-totalitarianism in a free society.
In an article Truthout, you quote Eisenhower’s 1953 “Cross of Iron” speech. What was your takeaway?
You should read it and you’ll see why it’s interesting. It’s the best speech he ever made. This was 1953, when he was just starting his presidency. He basically stated that militarization was a huge attack on our own society. He — or whoever wrote the speech — put it pretty eloquently. One jet plane equals this many schools and hospitals. Every time we’re building up our military budget, we’re attacking ourselves.
He explained it in detail and called for a decrease in the military budget. Although he had a terrible record, he was on target in this regard. And those words should be emblazoned in everyone’s memory. Biden recently proposed a massive military budget. The Congress increased it beyond his request, which is a major attack on society, exactly like Eisenhower explained years ago.
The excuse: the claim that we have to defend ourselves from this paper tiger, so militarily incompetent it can’t move a couple of miles beyond its border without collapse. So, with a monstrous military budget, we have to severely harm ourselves and endanger the world, wasting enormous resources that will be necessary if we’re going to deal with the severe existential crises we face. To ensure that the fossil-fuel producers can continue their destruction of the world, taxpayer funds are being funnelled into their pockets. That’s what we’re witnessing with the vast expansion of both fossil-fuel production and military expenditures. This is not a problem for everyone. Go to the executive offices of Lockheed Martin, ExxonMobil, they’re ecstatic. It’s a bonanza for them. They’re even being given credit for it. Now, they’re being lauded for saving civilization by destroying the possibility for life on Earth. Forget the Global South. If you imagine some extraterrestrials, if they existed, they’d think we were all totally insane. And they’d be right.